Source Book for Sociology

Author: Kimball Young  | Date: 1934

39. The Region and Its Metropolitan Center21

The term regionalism has grown up in the social sciences to define the fact that various geographical areas become unified culturally, largely at first on economic grounds, often without reference to the political boundaries of national states or national subdivisions. Regions in the sociological sense are rather tenuous communities marked by a central city or metropolis, various smaller cities and towns, and a wide or narrow hinterland or surrounding area producing food and raw materials. While the region may begin as an economic unit, it develops in time noneconomic factors: a certain sense of community solidarity, as evidenced, for example, by consensus of opinion, and certain cultural patterns of action and thought—educational, recreational, and others—which distinguish it from other regions.

The development of the region as a socioeconomic unit will be brought out by reference first to the rise of the metropolitan centers.

In the rise of the metropolis there is often a combination of both industry and commerce. This is true of New York, Chicago, St. Paul and Minneapolis, Kansas City, Seattle, and of other centers. But none of these cities would have developed without a hinterland or surrounding 107 territory to furnish them support. There must also be sufficient distance between one center and another to prevent any undue competition and rivalry which might restrict growth. N. S. B. Gras thus emphasizes the combination of factors which make such a center grow up:

"A metropolitan community arises only where conditions are favorable. Natural resources must be considerable: in the early days, foodstuffs and textile fibers; in the recent period, coal and iron. . . . Transportation facilities are, of course, also indispensable. The land must be not too rocky for highways and railroads. . . . Where land and navigable water meet, the prospects are greatest. So far there is no full-fledged metropolitan community without a combination of water and land transportation. The future, however, may be different when aerial navigation attains a commercial basis. No metropolitan community can arise unless situated at a respectful distance from its neighbors. Providence has no chance, nor has Milwaukee. Baltimore has lost partly because too near to Philadelphia, and Philadelphia has suffered because too near New York. It is not so much a matter of physical crowding as availability of supplies in adjoining districts. So far as society has yet developed, it seems to be true that there can be no metropolitan community in tropical parts where the atmosphere is both hot and humid. The handicap is too great, both in the matter of manual labor and managerial effort."22

Certain centers do not develop into metropolitan cities because they lack the hinterland. San Diego, California, is such a city.23 Duluth, Minnesota, although in many respects rather independent of St. Paul and Minneapolis, can scarcely compete with them for the leadership of the region because except in mining it lacks a hinterland, and because it is too near the larger centers.

There are a number of important factors in the evolution of a metropolitan center: natural resources, easy transportation, concentration of population, and regional specialization. In every case it is evident that without coal and iron such places as Pittsburgh would hardly develop. Or without lumber, wheat, and minerals such a metropolitan center as the "Twin Cities" would not come into being.

As the dominant center develops in relation to the subsidiary centers and to the agricultural or mineral regions around them, the need for increased facilities of transportation and communication becomes acute. The wider the total area, the more interdependent the parts will be to each other and to the center, and the greater will be the necessity for ample communication. In fact, it is the matter of easy communication which often determined the location of towns that 108 later came to be metropolitan centers. At the outset river transportation is important. Where river traffic meets the sea, as at New York and New Orleans, where river traffic changes to land or smaller river traffic, as at the "Twin Cities" or Cincinnati in the early days, or where two streams of river traffic converge, such localities, other things being equal, will give rise to towns and cities that develop into metropolitan centers. The relationship of hinterland and transportation facilities is shown by the changes brought about by the construction of the Erie Canal with its effects upon the port of New York. John W. Prey comments:

"Previous to the construction of the canal the cost of transportation from Buffalo to New York City was $100 a ton, and the ordinary length of the trip was twenty days. On the opening of the Erie Canal the cost of freight fell according to its class, to between $15 and $25 a ton, and eventually to a much lower figure, and the time of transit was reduced to eight days. Rates from Ohio to the seaboard were reduced until they were one tenth of their former figure. The entire western lake district was given an outlet for its products. The building of the Erie Canal established an economic bond between the East and the West, and between the West and Europe. . . .

"New York became the premier American port because it was the ocean terminal of the Erie Canal Route, and this early advantage gave it such a momentum that its growth continued unabated after the canal became unimportant."24

In like manner it was the railroads, not the waterways, that really made Chicago. It has come to be the leading railway center of the United States; and in this particular, at least, it dominates other important rail centers such as Omaha and Indianapolis.

Regional concentration is also an evident aspect of the growth of metropolitan centers. Some areas are favored over others because of various combinations of geographical location, natural resources, and transportation facilities, and there occurs a concentration both of population and of social-economic functions. Wherever there has occurred a movement from a primitive rural, agricultural system or from a system of town economy to one of metropolitan form, there has gone on a shift in population from the country to the city. R. D. McKenzie states that "practically all food-producing areas of countries which have come under the influence of modern machine industry have decreased in population during the last few decades."25 Moreover, the limits of regional concentration are a rough measure of the relative competitive strength with other areas. This is well illustrated in the 109 competition between the "Twin Cities" and rival cities such as St. Louis and Chicago. As McKenzie puts it:

". . . The degree of concentration attained by any locality is therefore a measure of its resource and location advantages as compared with those of its competitors. This strength is shown in the struggle for the hinterland, raw materials, and markets, and depends upon the conditions of transportation and communication."26

Thus the metropolitan center controls the smaller cities, towns, and open-country areas of the surrounding territory. The whole matter is one of interrelation of center and contiguous area. Mildred Hartsough describes it thus:

". . . The center is the nucleus of economic life, but the area is just as much an integral part of metropolitan economy, the area and the center being mutually dependent. The products of the tributary area find their most convenient market in the metropolitan center, while the economic activities of the latter are based on the needs of the area. Metropolitan economy may thus be described as an organization of the economic life of a large group of consumers and producers, mutually dependent, who work out this dependence through a marketing organization which finds its nucleus in the metropolitan center."27

At the outset the collection and shipping of raw materials and the attendant merchandising associated with these occupations often mark the activity of the center. Manufacturing may develop later, and thus market relations may grow up. In time, however, the industrial expansion of the center begins to be limited, both by the natural boundaries and the lack of cheap land, and decentralization of manufacturing in the region may take place. Towns and cities around the dominant center take up subsidiary positions. Not only do costs of manufacturing decrease, but often nearness to raw materials is a factor. Thus so-called satellite cities may arise. Of course in the case of such extractive industries as lumbering, mining, or drilling for oil, the industry has to develop at the site of the raw products. And these may be somewhat removed from the metropolitan center. Thus the mining towns of California and Nevada have definite relations with the metropolitan center San Francisco. So, too, the oil region of Oklahoma has distinct relations with other distant centers.

Certain specializations of function often mark metropolitan regions. There are sections characterized largely by single or dual crop agriculture, such as wheat or cotton and tobacco areas. These may give way in time to local specializations of various sorts, thus making 110 for more adequate production of certain goods in certain areas and not in others. In the same way local facilities for manufacture may lead to specializations within the region.

As a reverse phase of concentration of activities in the metropolitan center goes the development of decentralization through dispersion of industries Into rural or smaller urban centers. High land values and high taxes, high labor costs, high freight rates—these in particular tend to produce a certain limitation on the concentration of industrial plants.

Cheap interurban transportation by such means as the automobile and the electric or steam railway permits the dispersion of population. These features are common to any urban center and have application here only as this back movement becomes associated with the evolution of the large regional centers. Actually many smaller cities arise with certain important local-area functions as well as with certain relations to the dominant center. Thus Milwaukee is tributary to Chicago, Buffalo to New York, and Providence to Boston. All of these, of course, develop as local centers of importance but are definitely overshadowed by the larger centers of the whole region.

The final stage, however, in metropolitan economy is not reached until the center becomes financially dominant over the region. The importance of the commercial and investment bank should be apparent to everyone; and in the course of time financial dependence of the region upon the center becomes more striking. As Hartsough puts it:

". . . In fact, financial centralization continues to increase, rather than decrease, as time goes on. Thus, upon the metropolitan center falls the chief task of financing the enterprises, whether they are carried on within the center itself, or in the hinterland. . . ."28

The center and the region are not isolated from or independent of other even larger centers. Thus the particular center may secure capital funds from other areas for investment so that the metropolitan area often has definite relationships with still other and perhaps larger though more tenuous regions. Thus a bank in Minneapolis may draw upon Chicago, New York, or even upon London or Paris for capital to invest in its local areal industries or agriculture. Or a district may, in turn, draw upon other areas for some of its manufactured goods, which it redistributes within the boundaries of its own district. In this way the metropolitan area comes to have a relationship to other similar areas or to still larger regions that dominate it, at least in part.

The metropolitan area, though it has been studied largely only in its economic aspects, has important sociological and political implications. We have no very clear-cut studies of the sociological features 111 of regionalism, but some of the factors are apparent. Regional specialization creates interdependence between various regions, as is witnessed by the concentration of citrus fruits in California and Florida, of steel and iron around the Pittsburgh section, of flour in the Northwest, oil in the southwestern and southern California fields. But regional specialization produces other effects. It makes for a regional selection by age, sex, race, and nationality as these follow out of occupational requirements of various regions. Thus in some cases industrial specialization creates single-sex cities: for example, textile cities such as Lowell, Paterson, and New Bedford have a preponderance of women of certain ages, while centers of heavy industry such as Pittsburgh and Detroit have a predominance of men.

Also the center comes to dominate many cultural elements in the total region. It becomes, in connection with marketing, the center of a wide newspaper circulation. And this circulation means not only news and advertising of importance to retail merchants, wholesale merchants, jobbers, and others; it becomes an important factor in the spread of all sorts of cultural features—fashions, inventions, news of wider range, literary and artistic materials, and the like. In fact, newspaper circulation plays a role in reflecting certain economic changes and certain economic interrelations of the community.29

The metropolitan center likewise frequently becomes the educational center of an entire region, although the charging of out-of-state fees by state universities tends to put a political limitation upon the natural tendency of students to flow, like the raw products of a region, into the metropolitan educational centers.

The metropolitan center also sets up leisure-time opportunities which smaller centers could not afford or support, such as those provided by art galleries, museums, large libraries, theaters, opera houses, symphony concert organizations, and the like.

Just as any urban community develops recreational facilities for the residents of the city, so the metropolis draws to its brightly lighted streets not only local patrons, but travelers, businessmen, tourists, and others from the whole area who come to the center not only to buy and sell ordinary economic goods, but who come there also for "a good time," for relaxation, and sometimes for escape from the too prevalent power of the neighborhood or from the ennui and narrowness of the farm or small town.

Political boundaries have little or no relation to the natural economic and sociological area. If, as we have seen, the modern city has overflowed into the rural and country neighborhoods around it, often the metropolitan region presents another problem of the same general 112 type but drawn on a grander scale. Thus, the New York port area reaches into New Jersey, while as a population and marketing area it reaches into Connecticut as well as into New Jersey. Chicago as an industrial center reaches across state lines into Indiana and as a local trading area into both Indiana and Wisconsin; as a metropolitan area it reaches intimately into perhaps a dozen states and into many more in important if less obvious ways, as for instance in the matter of financial control. In the same way St. Louis, sometimes called the capital of the forty-ninth state, has intimate relations with the economic life of at least four states. Thus just as the urban community in its relation to municipal government lags woefully behind its social and economic organization, so also for the metropolitan areas of our country, state boundary lines have distinct political, if not economic, limitations. In the United States little has been done to break down the isolation dependent on state sovereignty. Yet we are beginning. The federal government has certain regulations affecting interstate metropolitan areas. And since 1932 federal relief policies involving various economic matters and administrative regulations have undermined the traditional isolation of states. Charles E. Merriam, commenting on the wider aspects of the drift toward regionalism, remarks:

"The truth is that the state itself is standing upon slippery ground as a political unit. Thirteen of our states have a historical background, but . . . the others are the creatures of the surveyor’s chain, with a few exceptions. Since the states risked all in a war with the nation over their alleged sovereignty and lost magnificently, they have gone steadily down the gentle slope. In the new German constitution the states lost even more heavily than here. Most states do not now correspond to economic or social unities and their validity as units of organization and representation may be and has been seriously challenged. The nation and the city are vigorous organs, but the state is not comparatively. Certainly as guides and guardians of cities, the states have been singularly ill-equipped and ill-qualified. Conceivably, states might be very useful to cities as administrative superiors, supervising such affairs as finances and police, but practically they have no such function as a rule and it does not seem probable they will in the near future, so far as metropolitan regions are concerned.

"From another point of view, those interested in preserving the balance of powers between national and local governments, might find the urban community a more effective counter-weight to the centralizing tendencies of federal government than the feebly struggling states which now make such ineffectual resistance to the continuous pressure of national consolidation."30

And Gras, looking at the same problem, remarks:


"Today the effective political control is national and provincial, or, in America, federal and state. A possible rival system is on another basis: it is international and regional. The state is so connected with prejudice and vanity that its continued usefulness is doubtful. The province is so narrow that it hampers metropolitan regional growth. A new alignment of forces would be a widening international organization based on metropolitan regional units. Unfortunately for such a plan the metropolitan regional unit has been, and remains, informal. It has no constitution, no officials, no boundaries. And yet it has a reality which is being grappled for by widely separated persons and groups. Geographers emphasize it in their work. The study of marketing has isolated the phenomena and traced the history. Students of law have recognized the need of it. Chambers of commerce have planned to further it. Governors of provinces or local states have felt the necessity of getting together, at least for temporary regional consultations. Rivers do not flow for the convenience of provinces. Plant diseases respect no provincial boundaries. Railroads have to run through and across, without regard to administrative lines. But metropolitan grouping, clumsy as any grouping must be, is the smallest now commensurate with real economic situations. Down at the bottom is the metropolitan region. Away above is the expanding international state. These are both dreams, for the present blocked by actual states and real provinces."31

The divergence between political state lines and economic regions creates problems of political control which may give rise to international difficulties when the metropolitan area overreaches two nations. The problem concerning the control of coal and iron resources in northeastern France and western Germany is only one example. What the future may develop in these matters we do not know. (See Selection 42, pp. 120–21.)

21 Selection prepared by Kimball Young, with appropriate quotations.

22 From N. S. B. Gras, "The Rise of the Metropolitan Community," Publications of the American Sociological Society, July, 1926, vol. 20, p. 159; published as American Journal of Sociology, July, 1926, vol. 33, Part 2. Reprinted by permission.

23 San Diego is also too near Los Angeles to develop an independent area.

24 From John W. Frey, "The Port of New York," The Journal of Geography, Sept., 1922, vol. 21, pp. 210–11. Reprinted by permission.

25 R. D. McKenzie, "The Scope of Human Ecology," Publications of the American So. ciological Society, July, 1926, vol. 20, p. 147; published as American Journal of Sociology, July, 1926, vol. 33, Part 2. Reprinted by permission.


27 Mildred Hartsough, The Development of the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul) as a Metropolitan Market, 1924, p. 6. By permission of The University of Minnesota Press, publishers.

28 Hartsough, op. cit., p. 9.

29 See R. E. Park, "Urbanization as Measured by Newspaper Circulation," American Journal of Sociology, July, 1929, vol. 35, pp. 60–79.

30 From Charles E Merriam, "Metropolitan Regions," The University Record, April, 1928, vol. 14, pp. 74–75. By permission of The University of Chicago Press, publishers.

31 From Gras, op. cit., pp. 162–63. Reprinted by permission.


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Chicago: Kimball Young, "39. The Region and Its Metropolitan Center," Source Book for Sociology in Source Book for Sociology, ed. Kimball Young (Cincinnati: American Book Company, 1935), Original Sources, accessed February 24, 2024,

MLA: Young, Kimball. "39. The Region and Its Metropolitan Center." Source Book for Sociology, in Source Book for Sociology, edited by Kimball Young, Cincinnati, American Book Company, 1935, Original Sources. 24 Feb. 2024.

Harvard: Young, K, '39. The Region and Its Metropolitan Center' in Source Book for Sociology. cited in 1935, Source Book for Sociology, ed. , American Book Company, Cincinnati. Original Sources, retrieved 24 February 2024, from